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Can South Africa make a difference on a fractured Security Council?

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Can South Africa make a difference on a fractured Security Council?


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South Africa was once ‘a giant in the world and our reputation was well known, because of what we represented’, says the country’s International Relations and Cooperation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu. This reputation has been tarnished in recent years – including in the United Nations (UN).

But the country now has the opportunity to regain some of that lost status, particularly when it comes to UN peace and security matters. On 8 June South Africa was elected for the third time as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, for the period 2019-20. The country previously held two terms as a non-permanent member – from 2007-8 and 2011-12.


South Africa was the only African candidate for the position that is currently being held by Ethiopia until the end of 2018. Its candidacy was endorsed by the January 2018 African Union (AU) Summit, so its bid was already expected to be successful.

With Cyril Ramaphosa’s appointment as president in February this year, the membership comes at a time of political transition and efforts to address the country’s problems mentioned by Sisulu. It is also a chance to highlight changes to the country’s foreign policy priorities.


South Africa rejoins the council at a time when the effectiveness of multilateralism and, in particular, the UN Security Council are being increasingly questioned by a geopolitical divide among its permanent members (P5).

There is a frequent lack of consensus between the so-called P3 – the United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK) and France – and Russia (and to some extent China). Discussions on Syria and Ukraine, for instance, are becoming increasingly difficult, leading to limited progress on the council’s responses to such crises.

The council divide is also expressed within the P3, for example in the differing positions of the US, France and the UK regarding the Iran nuclear deal. It also became clear in the negotiations for deployment of the G5 Sahel Force, when France and the US had difficulty in reaching consensus on the involvement of the UN in the force. 

Challenges are further seen in issues viewed historically as being of peripheral importance to the council, such as African issues. Richard Gowan, a seasoned Security Council analyst, says ‘trapped in a cycle of worsening distrust … recent negotiations over the small UN missions in Haiti and Western Sahara became unexpectedly heated, as China and Russia accused the United States and its allies of trying to “railroad” resolutions through the Council’.

The 10 non-permanent members of the council, also referred to as the Elected or E10, find themselves in the middle of a difficult strategic situation. The P5 dynamics are leading to an impasse in the council. At the same time though, old alliances are fracturing, creating a space for the E10 to become more vocal and potentially bridge divides.

Such bridge-building is not easy and requires from E10 members a balance between pragmatism and principle-based approaches. For instance Gowan relates how the P3 complained that the Swedes were too keen to compromise with China and Russia for the sake of consensus on general matters.

South Africa will be judged on how it responds to Africa’s various conflicts, which comprise most of the issues discussed on the council. Stakeholders in New York told the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in April that they hoped to see South Africa showing greater leadership on issues such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and South Sudan.

Most of South Africa’s peacekeepers are deployed to the UN mission in the DRC, although its peacekeeping ability has declined in line with an under-funded military. The country has also played an important role in supporting peace processes across the continent, including in Burundi, the DRC and South Sudan. It is expected that South Africa will now play more than a supporting role when it comes to council responses to African crises.

In particular the country is expected to help create coherence among the council’s African members (A3). In doing so, South Africa could try to reduce inconsistencies in the positions taken by the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) in Addis Ababa and A3 members in New York.

In the past, the AU PSC has asked A3 members to coordinate better with Addis Ababa, particularly when it comes to defending PSC decisions and positions. South Africa joins Côte d’Ivoire and Equatorial Guinea in the A3.

South Africa will also be expected to help strengthen UN-AU relations, which was a priority for the country in its previous terms on the council. UN-AU relations have improved in the past years, including through regular engagements between the UN Security Council and the AU Peace and Security Council. But certain strategic and operational deadlocks still need attention, such as AU peace support operation funding.

Strategic clarity and planning will be vital for South Africa’s council membership to succeed. The country must identify what it wants to achieve, and structure its New York mission to best respond to a very demanding task. This includes deploying more diplomats who can navigate a complex and often overwhelming system. It will also require proactive communication on positions and approaches both in South Africa and New York.

The ball is in South Africa’s court. As one UN staff member told the ISS in April, ‘Many African members are often willing, but unable, to make a difference. We know South Africa is able, we now need to see whether it is willing to make a difference [on] the council.’

Written by Gustavo de Carvalho, Senior Researcher, Peace Operations and Peacebuilding, ISS Pretoria


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